This is a story about a movement that is “a long wet kiss into the future.” That kiss began May 1 when Ride Till The End took off from Fayetteville’s Veterans’ Park. The intent of those involved is to cycle across the southern United States to raise awareness about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until the wars end.
Spearheaded by Jacob George, who did three U.S. Army tours in Afghanistan, and his younger brother, Jordan, who joined the National Guard at age 17, Ride Till The End is not so interested in loudspeakers and front-page coverage as they are about creating genuine channels of communication for veterans and for citizens.
Joint Special Forces veteran Jacob George joined the Army in 2000 to serve his country and to get an education. He took his missions seriously and performed them well, climbing in rank and leaving the military with honors. But like many war veterans, he came home and found himself lost and confused.
He couldn’t speak of his experiences. He saw too clearly the discrepancy between what the emblem on his Special Forces hat read, “Free the Oppressed,” and what he felt his mission actually became. The emblem on the hat, Jacob says, should have read “Cultural Assassin.”
The catalysts for change began in Afghanistan. Jacob recalls the terror in a farmer’s eyes as Jacob jumped, gun in hand, from a helicopter. He also recalls the mobilization orders for 500,000 to set up camps on the border of Iraq in 2002 when there was not yet any public proclamation in the U.S.
But, “As a soldier in action I learned to not question. The people who did unraveled,” Jacob said.
Several of Jacob’s friends, who I talked with at the May Day rally, said Jacob was “pretty messed up” when he returned from the military.
Jacob, himself testifies to that.
“The military trains you to be a soldier and, in some ways, a sociopath. There is no training or instruction for returning to civilian life. Besides folks just plain not comprehending the depth of our experiences, returning soldiers may not reveal themselves because of the discrepancy between our guts, which may say that what we are doing over there just isn’t right, and society’s expectations of us as patriotic heroes.”
Art Is The Answer
Jacob credits art with being not just his saving grace but everyone’s. While at the University of Arkansas, where he attended classes full-time and worked full-time, two classes were instrumental in helping him expand his understanding of art and his own war experiences.
Composition II exposed him to poetry, which he began writing. He shared his poetry with his brother, Jordan, who he found out had been writing poetry since he was 14. This opened up the vein Jacob needed to explore and express his experiences. Now Jacob and Jordan both write poetry and songs that they are performing across the South.
Anthropology class with ethnographer and professor Nicholas Copeland brought Jacob to the realization he had been trained to be a “a cultural assassin.” Jacob’s knowledge and perspectives impressed Copeland who is responsible for the “long wet kiss” quote.
Copeland is staying involved with Ride Till The End and organized a bike ride on July 4 in Houston with RTE leading the way.
“Vets gave their bodies and peace of mind and upon their return are asked to silently bear their suffering,” Copeland said. “The media tends to make heroes out of them and ignore the real and complicated stories of vets. Jacob and RTE are giving fellow vets the courage and a voice. ”
Since May 1, Jacob, Jordan and others have ridden across Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. In New Orleans they organized a massive ride to protest the poor response by British Petroleum to the oil leak.
This month they will be in Houston and Austin, Texas, where they will organize solidarity bike rides, speak, share their poetry and music and, just as importantly, create venues where other vets can speak out.
In Austin, their efforts will be dovetailed with the Iraq Veterans Against the War national convention. This fall they will return to Fayetteville and then take off again on their bicycles for speaking engagements at universities across the Southwest. These fall engagements are a direct result of this summer’s ride.
The movement is on. It has lots of support from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and Vietnam veterans.
“We are a similar movement to the 60s but with one clear difference: without the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” Jacob said. “We are sticking to the mission.”
The Economic Draft
When 28-year-old Jacob George entered the military he was only 18. He and Jordan, who at age 17 joined the National Guard, grew up in Danville in Yell County. With few resources to help them go to college or create lives other than becoming chicken plant workers, they both at separate times took the recruiter’s bait: college tuition paid and job training.
Did the fine print say if you survive … if you have all your limbs … if you don’t so dramatically suffer from the trauma of war that you can’t study?
Do the recruiters tell their quarry that 8 percent of the general population can claim veteran status but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans? (From the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.)
What we have today and have had for at least 10 years is an economic draft. The Friends Committee on National Legislation in their February 2005 Washington Newsletter stated the Pentagon employs its recruiters where they have the best prospect for success.
A February 2001 study for the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences reveals recruiters’ game plan.
The study “suggested that categorizing potential recruits based on their career decision-making patterns and their parents’ socioeconomic status may be useful for targeting recruiting strategies. For example … more financially constrained, goal-oriented youth may respond more positively to the educational or financial benefits available through military service.”
The Central Committee on Conscientious Objectors warns potential enlisters: “Recruiters like to talk about educational opportunities while you’re in the military. According to recruiters, not only will you learn skills in your job specialty but you also have the chance to take college courses on base or close by. In theory, this may be true. But when the military commissioned a study to see what soldiers thought of military recruiting, an overwhelming number responded that they thought military advertisements’ promises of education were ‘lies … false [or] not the truth to me.’ Rather than working with the helicopters you see in slick advertisements, they found themselves ‘buffing floors and picking up cigarette butts.’”
Some sources say about 15 percent of veterans actually go on to graduate from college. This is difficult to verify because strangely the Veterans Administration does not seem to track the number of veteran college graduates.
The 2007 U.S. Census, however, does show that among male veterans 25 years of age and older only 15 percent hold bachelor’s degrees. Female veterans do seem to graduate at a higher rate, according to the Census Bureau.
Many returning vets have post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems that are not conducive to studying. And, says Jacob, the process of actually getting your GI Bill is quite complicated.
“I dropped out twice because the government was not sending me the money,” Jacob said. “I finally had to call Rep. (John) Boozman (3rd District) who succeeded in getting them to send the promised sums.”
Eventually Jacob secured a full-time job at the University of Arkansas so that his full-time status would allow him to go to school at a reduced tuition. That way he would not have the stress of wondering when and if the government would send his money.
The Only Way Out Of Danville
Jacob had already returned from the military when Jordan — with his mother’s required signature — signed up for the National Guard. Seeing the Guard as his only ticket out of Danville, he could not be talked out of it. As of May 1, however Jordan is Absent Without Leave. It is an act of civil disobedience.
What changed Jordan’s way of thinking came about through the exchanges of poetry between the two brothers. When asked if he is ready to go to jail, both Jordan and Jacob laughed.
“Afghanistan or jail. Are you kidding? I’d much rather he goes to jail than war,” Jacob said.
Over coffee, just before Ride Till The End’s May departure, I asked Jacob about the specifics of his active duty. He looked away and then gazed directly in my eyes.
“Here is how I want to answer that question whenever it is posed. As a member of Special Forces, I am told that, at severe penalty of law, my work and circumstances are classified information, which means I can’t tell you much of anything.
“The more essential question to ask is ‘Why does the U.S. government not have transparency about what they are doing over there?’ That is what we the people need to question.”
Jacob writes in his poetry and essay book “Ride till the End,” “Join us on this ride if you can. If not show support and we will carry you in spirit … I want to understand the person standing next to me just as I understand myself. I’m tired of being taught to do everything one-way and I know some of you are too. It’s time to change that.”